It has been a relatively calm parliamentary election campaign so far in Kyrgyzstan. But international experts are worried that it won’t stay quiet following the October 10 vote.
Kyrgyzstan has already experienced more than a fair share of turmoil this year, first with the collapse of Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration in April, then the interethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June. Some experts had feared that the parliamentary campaign could catalyze a new bout of instability. Yet the campaign has so far been relatively quiet.
The election has an ambitious aim: to transform Kyrgyzstan from a presidential into a parliamentary republic. It is the first attempt by a Central Asian state, a region with an authoritarian-minded leadership tradition, to undergo such a political makeover. Despite a better-than-expected electoral environment, international experts are not especially confident that the experiment will succeed, and they appear to be bracing for trouble ahead.
“Rumors of vote-buying are widespread,” according to a recent report on the campaign, prepared by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “Tensions continue to be high, especially in the south. […] This may discourage voters to cast their ballot, especially amongst the ethnic Uzbek community.”
To promote a free and fair election, the OSCE is deploying approximately 300 international observers. For the first time, polling stations will be equipped with fax machines to facilitate immediate counting and skirt potentially meddling intermediaries.
A major concern among foreign observers is that ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan will be underrepresented in the new legislature. Without adequate minority participation, the experiment in parliamentary democracy could fail to get off the ground. “A pluralistic democracy offering Uzbeks and other minorities a voice is necessary to end the cycles of nationalism and violence, lest Kyrgyzstan again slip into bloodshed,” said Fabio Piana, country director for Freedom House Kyrgyzstan.
In the election campaign, 3,351 candidates from 29 parties have been competing for 120 seats in a unicameral legislature. A political party needs to win at least 5 percent of the nationwide vote and 0.5 percent in each province, including Bishkek and Osh, to gain representation in parliament. Seats will be apportioned according to the percentage of the vote a qualifying party receives.
The Central Election Commission requires at least 15 percent of each party’s list be comprised of minority candidates, and the CEC also requires each party to field 120 candidates. No party can legally hold more than 65 seats (and no party is likely to win more than 25), allowing parties to stack their minority representatives beyond the possible threshold where they could conceivably be elected. Only six of 29 parties put their minority representative quota above 65th place on their respective party lists, the OSCE has noted.
Parties have campaigned less on platforms than on personalities, and many maintain tense relationships with each other. Only six or seven parties have a realistic chance of winning seats, polls indicate. Thus, the voting results could create a large pool of unrepresented, disgruntled voters.
Of the leading contenders to enter parliament, Ata-Meken and the Social Democratic Party (SDPK) are seen as pro-government, and are led by figures involved in the April events that led to Bakiyev’s downfall. Provisional President Roza Otunbayeva is a long-time SDPK member, though she resigned from the party in May in order to fashion herself as a non-partisan chief executive.
Respublika, Ar-Namys and Ata-Jurt are seen as opposition parties. Former Prime Minister Felix Kulov’s Ar-Namys promises to improve security and enjoys roughly equal support in the North and South, though it is especially strong in Bishkek. Ata-Jurt is a nationalist party with little support in the North, but a strong following in southern Kyrgyzstan. Members of its top leadership worked under Bakiyev and inherited his base.
Russian leaders have been critical of the Kyrgyz provisional government’s efforts to introduce parliamentary democracy, saying the system will further weaken the former Soviet state and empower extremists. The Kremlin has sought to influence the vote by endorsing Kulov, who has said he will seek to amend the constitution yet again in order to restore a strong presidential system.
Because the vote is so divided, no party that enters parliament is expected to control enough seats to govern. Thus, the legislature is likely to feature an unwieldy coalition, an expectation that already has fostered speculation about who will become the next prime minister, the most powerful position in the country under the new, revamped Constitution.
Observers worry that if party leaders do not quickly unite in the legislature to target endemic corruption, criminality, and joblessness, factional fighting could again spill out into the streets.
Parties must offer more “practical solutions” to the country’s problems, said Piana of Freedom House Kyrgyzstan. “A few leading politicians have been the face of this campaign, yet they do not have a history of acting in concert. The true test will be how these parties form coalitions in the future legislature and if they are willing to work together to address the corruption and offer young jobless people hope for the future.”
Kyrgyzstan’s notoriously shifting alliances may hamper parliament’s ability to create a durable, working majority. “The so-called opposition parties will be forced to form a coalition. But it will not be based on ideology, rather exist simply because they are against the pro-government parties. That won’t last,” predicted an Ata-Meken candidate.
The American-operated air transit center at Manas Airport has not been a major topic of campaigning. But many political analysts expect it to be one of the first issues the next parliament addresses because of “patronizing” Russian interference on the topic, said the Ata-Meken candidate.
Former interim Finance Minister Temir Sariev said on October 7 that the rent Washington pays for the facility should be increased from $60 million to $100 million a year. Sariev heads the Ak-Shumkar Party and is tipped to become the future government’s finance minister. In an apparent effort to curry favor with Moscow, Ata-Jurt’s nationalist leader Kamchybek Tashiev has said the base should be closed.
Ata-Jurt is seen as a potential political wildcard. Tashiev has stated that members of ethnic minority groups in Kyrgyzstan must “respect” the Kyrgyz, otherwise the state could become critically weakened. Following this summer’s violent clashes in Osh between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, he has enjoyed wild popularity in southern Kyrgyz districts, where voters feel marginalized by the anti-Bakiyev parties that came to power in Bishkek and complain international observers have unfairly sided with the Uzbeks.
“We’ll have a problem if nationalist parties popular in the south don’t make it over the 5 percent threshold to secure seats, or if they feel the vote has been manipulated against their favor in any way,” one international elections observer said on condition of anonymity, according to protocol. “Some parties have told us that, if the vote appears rigged, they will come out into the street.”
David Trilling is the Central Asia news editor for EurasiaNet.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.